Social Work Careers

Do you have a desire to help people? Are you looking for a job that allows you to make a difference in someone’s life? If you are seeking a profession that can provide meaningful connections with people, an occupation in social work may prove to be an ideal career path.

Social workers can find employment across many industries, including health care, government and education. While the workplace and roles may vary, one thing remains: Social workers focus on making a positive impact on others. Curious as to what specific responsibilities come with the title? Learn what social work careers are available and how you can pursue this exciting opportunity.

What do Social Workers Do?

Social workers are responsible for helping individuals, families and communities deal with difficult or stressful situations. They are care providers and advocates for their clients, whether they be children with behavioral issues, terminally ill patients or families facing displacement. The work environment is varied and includes schools, hospitals and the military.

Many believe that social workers are counselors. Though these two careers have similar roles, they are different. Counselors may help a client with a specific issue such as depression or alcoholism, while social workers provide a more comprehensive array of services to a larger client base. Social workers are not private therapists; however, they can perform individual counseling.

What Is a Macro Social Worker?

Macro social workers investigate social problems by researching their causes and effects on individuals and the community at large and design programs and advocacy initiatives that seek to address these problems at the community, state and national levels. Macro social workers can work at social justice and advocacy organizations, research institutions such as universities, government departments and think tanks that develop human services programs, and nonprofits.

Macro social workers typically need specialized knowledge and skills in research, advocacy and/or program development; thus, many of them complete graduate-level social work courses in these areas, typically as part of an accredited master’s in social work (MSW) program. Many macro social workers also spend some time completing direct-service or clinical work in order to better understand the challenges faced by the populations they wish to help.

How to Become a Social Worker

The social work profession addresses social problems at the individual, community, state and national levels and alleviates the issues of vulnerable populations. Whether you are interested in working closely with individuals and groups, engaging in research or advocacy, or developing programs that educate and support certain populations within the community, this guide may help you become a social worker.

Do you already know what social work career you want to pursue? Then find out the best online master's in social work for you.

Learn more about social work careers by checking out our “how to become” resources below:

11 Different Types of Social Work Careers

You can find any number of social work positions in various settings throughout most communities. While many common occupations offer limited professional development, social work is a flexible career path that accommodates experience, location and industry. Here’s a closer look at 12 different types of social work careers.

Child Welfare Social Workers

Child welfare social workers help resolve conflict in households with children. While their role specializes in working with a family to build a safe and loving environment for children, they act as a child’s advocate. As such, child welfare social workers play a crucial role in the protection of the child or children from abuse or neglect. Our Introductory Guide to Child Welfare Social Work describes how child welfare social workers assist vulnerable children and families, and explains the challenges they face on the job. It also offers advice from practicing child welfare social workers on how to prepare for this career.

Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social workers represent the nation’s largest group of trained mental health professionals. In addition to performing individual and family therapy, licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) are permitted in some states to diagnose and treat mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. They often work in private practices, hospitals or neighborhood mental health agencies. Our Introductory Guide to Clinical Social Work explains the types of careers in clinical social work, describes the core assessments, therapeutic modalities, and case management services that clinical social workers provide, and details the unique rewards and challenges of this field.

Forensic Social Workers (Criminal Justice)

Forensic social workers apply established principles of social work to questions and issues relating to legal matters and litigation, both criminal and civil. Some cases in which forensic social workers may be involved include corrections, child custody and juvenile services. Our Introductory Guide to Forensic Social Work (Criminal Justice) describes the unique roles and responsibilities within forensic social work, and explains the challenges and rewards of the field. It also provides advice to social work students who are interested in becoming forensic social workers.

Gerontological Social Workers

As part of the system of health care social work, gerontological social workers help older (geriatric) clients and their families with locating services such as home health care and meal delivery. This type of social worker can further assist older adults as they transition into a nursing care or assisted living facility. Our Introductory Guide to Gerontological Social Work explains where gerontological social workers work, their daily and long-term responsibilities, and the challenges and rewards of their profession. It also provides advice to social work students on how to prepare for working with elderly populations.

Hospice and Palliative Social Workers

The classification of hospice and palliative social workers falls within the category of health care social work. Their responsibility is to help patients and their families cope with a terminal illness. Hospice and palliative social workers provide grief counseling or connect patients and their loved ones to outside resources that may include support groups. Our Introductory Guide to Hospice and Palliative Social Work describes the work settings and responsibilities of hospice and palliative care social workers, and explains the rewards and difficulties of the profession. This article also explains how individuals can prepare for a career in hospice social work.

Medical Social Workers

Medical social workers are another branch of social work within the health care social work structure. They help patients cope with chronic or terminal illnesses through psychological and social support. Other duties include discharge planning, assisting patients in connecting with other services, organizing support groups and performing home visits to recently discharged patients. Our Introductory Guide to Medical Social Work describes the diverse work settings and core responsibilities of medical social workers, and explains the challenges and rewards of the profession. It also provides advice on how social work students can prepare for a job in medical social work.

Military Social Workers

The U.S. military had 1.3 million troops in 2017 and another 865,000 in reserve, according to the New York Times. Adding the vast number of veterans in the country, military social workers have a huge clientele. It is the role of military social workers to provide military members and their families with resources they need to succeed from mental health to employment. Other social work opportunities within the military vary and include clinical work at Veterans Affairs hospitals. Our Introductory Guide to Military Social Work explains the different types of military social work roles and work environments, describes the typical responsibilities that military social workers fulfill, and provides advice to students considering a career in military social work.

Pediatric Social Workers

Pediatric social workers join physicians to provide a holistic approach to children and their families faced with medical adversity. While it is typical for a sick child to be the primary client, pediatric social workers may provide support to a child with a parent or family member suffering a health condition. Our Introductory Guide to Pediatric Social Work describes pediatric social workers’ typical responsibilities and work environments, and explains the challenges and rewards of the profession. It also offers advice from practicing pediatric social workers about preparing for this career.

Private Practice Social Workers

Depending on state regulations, private practice social workers can offer clinical and nonclinical services. Clinical work may involve counseling and providing psychotherapy to individuals, couples, families and groups. Nonclinical services may include mediation, education and conflict resolution, among others. Our Introductory Guide to Private Practice Social Work explores different types of private practices that licensed clinical social workers can establish, the kinds of client populations they can assist, and the unique challenges and rewards of starting one’s own private psychotherapy practice.

School Social Workers

These professionals work with children at every grade level. The responsibilities of school social workers include assisting students with issues such as truancy and behavior, which can affect academic progress. As an advocate for children, school social workers will connect with outside agencies and resources when necessary. Our Introductory Guide to School Social Work provides detailed information about school social workers’ daily and long term responsibilities, and offers advice from practicing school social workers regarding how to prepare for this career.

Macro Social Workers

Macro social workers focus on fostering positive changes in a community based on the diversity and cultural values of its residents. join community leaders and citizens to develop solutions that help resolve issues, encourage involvement and improve the lives of the residents. Our Introductory Guide to Macro Social Work discusses the key ways in which macro social workers can effect positive change at the local, state, and national levels, and also provides advice for prospective social workers about entering this broad and diverse field of practice.

Social Work Careers by Degree

Although requirements vary from state to state, for the social work careers listed above, a student should expect to need a master’s degree in social work (MSW). Other related social work positions may require either a bachelor’s degree or a doctorate.

Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work (BSW)

  • Case Management Aide
  • Probation Officer
  • Human Services Specialist
  • Community Outreach Worker
  • Juvenile Court Liaison

Ph.D. in Social Work (DSW)

  • Professor of Social Work
  • Human Services Administrator
  • Behavior Supervisor
  • Child Welfare Researcher
  • Non-Profit Director

Who is a Career in Social Work for?

The ideal candidate for a career in social work is one who strives to help others and enjoys a challenging role. A position in social work requires empathy, understanding and devotion to making a difference.

According to ONet Online, a resource maintained by U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration, these are skills social workers need to succeed at their jobs:

  • Active listening: giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate and not interrupting at inappropriate times.
  • Speaking: talking to others to convey information effectively.
  • Critical thinking: using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems.
  • Social perceptiveness: being aware of others' reactions and understanding why they react as they do.
  • Judgment and decision-making: considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate one.

Social Work Salaries

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the national average pay for social workers was $49,470 in 2018. For more specific salaries, please refer to the table below. It is important to remember these figures are not exact and may vary according to several factors—including but not limited to location and professional experience.

Job Prospects

According to the BLS, job prospects should be very good for the social work industry, particularly for clinical social workers. The agency reports a continued increase in health care spending and treatments will provide clinical social workers with a higher number of opportunities compared to social workers who do not offer treatment services.

Occupational Title Employment 2018 Employment 2028 Projected Employment 2028 (%)
Social workers, overall 707,400 788,600 11
Child, family & school social workers 339,800 364,600 7
Health care social workers 180,500 211,100 17
Mental health & substance abuse social workers 125,200 147,500 18
Social workers, all other 62,000 65,400 6

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Career Resources on OnlineMSWPrograms

To assist prospective social workers and social work students in their research of relevant careers, created in-depth guides to different careers in social work. To gain firsthand knowledge of these different fields, we interviewed more than 35 social workers. Their detailed responses provide key insights into what it is like to be a specific type of social worker, including what they do, the challenges they face and why they decided to work in that specific field. Our career guides include in-depth information on clinical social work, macro social work, military social work, school social work, pediatric social work, forensic social work, child welfare social work, psychiatric social work and medical social work.


Q. What are the license requirements for a social worker?

Because rules and regulations vary state to state, it is essential you look over the standards for whichever state in which you wish to work. You can view individual state requirements at the Association of Social Work Boards website.

Q. How long does it take to become a licensed social worker?

It depends on the level of licensure you want to obtain and your state’s requirements. These are general estimates: bachelor’s degree, four years; master’s degree in social work, two years; internship/practicum hours, varies. Social work credentials and licensing are obtainable through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

Q. Is a Master’s Degree in social work (MSW) worth it?

You may find employment within the social work industry with a bachelor’s degree in social work. However, your career opportunities will be limited. With a master’s degree in social work, you will increase your options to a variety of workplaces, including hospitals, schools or within the judicial system. The advanced degree may further enhance your earning potential.

Q. Can you get your Master’s Degree in social work online?

Yes. Today, several CSWE-accredited schools offer full- and part-time social work degree programs online

Q. How do I know if social work is right for me?

If you are interested in a demanding yet flexible and rewarding career that has plenty of job opportunities and allows you to make a difference in the lives of others, social work may be an ideal career choice for you.

Whether you choose to work with children, families, patients or communities, you will find a career in social work that will prove both challenging and rewarding.

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